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FINANCE AND PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
24/05/2010
PARLIAMENT PORTFOLIO
Department of the Senate

CHAIR —I welcome the President of the Senate, Senator the Hon. John Hogg; the Clerk of the Senate, Dr Laing, and officers of the Department of the Senate. I thank the department for providing the committee with updated information on Senate committee activities. Dr Laing, I understand you have an opening statement.

Dr Laing —Yes, just a short one. The Department of the Senate continues to face a tight budget situation. We are still subject to an extra two per cent efficiency dividend on top of the normal 1.25 per cent efficiency dividend, but we have ensured that the President and the appropriations and staffing committee have been regularly briefed on our financial progress throughout the year. As you would be aware, following a number of years of surpluses the department last year recorded a deficit of $1.43 million, which was a turnaround of approximately $3 million on the previous year’s surplus of $1.6 million. This change can be attributed to increased committee activity in the current parliament, including a higher level of select committee activity than for some years. As you have noted, Madam Chair, the usual detailed update on committee activities was provided to the committee last week.

At this stage, I expect that the department will record a small deficit, in the region of around $20,000 for this financial year, although this figure could change as the financial year statements are finalised. The amounts for inclusion in the parliamentary departments appropriation bill for the Senate were determined by the Senate Appropriations and Staffing Committee in accordance with standing order 19, and the committee’s report was tabled in budget week. In broad terms, our budget for next year is similar to this year’s, with a very small increase. I have informed staff that, while the situation is tight, the department will manage within its budget and there will be no diminution of services to senators.

For your information, the department has been negotiating a new enterprise agreement with staff and union bargaining representatives, because our existing agreement expires on 30 June. Once the agreement has been approved by the President, it will go to a staff ballot. In negotiating the agreement, the department has endeavoured to balance a tight budget with the need to recognise the very substantial contribution that our staff make to the operations of the department while, at the same time, maintaining levels of service to senators.

Finally, when I commenced my new role, I initiated a structural or review of the department to ensure that we have the optimal arrangements in place for delivering the department’s current mix of services. Consultations are occurring throughout the department and reports from various groups are being prepared for a steering group which is being chaired by the Acting Deputy Clerk. I expect that I will be able to provide more details of the outcome at the next hearing.

CHAIR —Thank you, Dr Laing.

Senator RONALDSON —Just before we start, can I put on the public record that the opposition, as you are aware, was opposed to the changes that have been made in relation to the conduct of Senate estimates hearings for this committee. We are concerned that if there is not some flexibility, as has been allowed in the past, that there may come—

CHAIR —Have you got a question, Senator Ronaldson?

Senator RONALDSON —I just want to make it quite clear that the opposition was opposed to this change of approach and I very much—

0Senator Cameron interjecting

Senator RONALDSON —You can have a go in a moment in a second, Senator Cameron. We have got a long week and I am happy to play it all week, if you like.

CHAIR —Senator Ronaldson, have you got a question for the witness?

Senator RONALDSON —Madam Chair, I have a question for you: even with this changed approach, I hope that you as chair will not, in any way, impede the opposition’s ability to ask questions in relation to a wide range of matters without invoking the portfolio defence?

CHAIR —Senator Ronaldson, I take it that you are not reflecting on the chair. In the course of deliberations of the committee—

Senator CAMERON —I thought he was, actually.

CHAIR —I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. We are going through the program, which is part of the protocol of Senate estimates hearings, for efficiency and to allow all senators to participate in estimates and be able to move, as you well know, from one committee to another. I remind you that the process here this morning—as is the norm—is that you have the opportunity to put questions to witnesses, rather than to make statements. Do you have a question?

Senator RONALDSON —I have never reflected on you, as you know. If I had an issue I would discuss that with you personally and I am sure you would do likewise. I respect your position and I think in all our time together on this committee I have not made those reflections on you personally or as chair. Dr Laing, congratulations—I do not think you have appeared as the clerk at Senate estimates before. Is that right?

Dr Laing —There were no questions, Senator!

Senator RONALDSON —What a build-up! Mr President, it is good to see you looking so fit and well.

The PRESIDENT —I see you in the gym, too, if you wanted that on the public record.

Senator RONALDSON —I was hoping you might respond accordingly. Thank you, very much. I want to raise the Senate contracts with Media Monitors for the supply of the daily newspaper clipping service, and I want to talk about the House of Representatives—I appreciate you probably cannot say much about that—and the Parliamentary Library, because it all looks a bit of a dogs breakfast. I am not talking about the Senate part of it but possibly elsewhere. The clipping service provided by the Senate: that is through Media Monitors, isn’t it?

Dr Laing —That is right.

Senator RONALDSON —At an approximate cost of $80,000 per annum. Is that correct?

Dr Laing —I will get the Usher of the Black Rod to give you a detailed breakdown, Senator.

Mr Hallett —There are probably three components to the cost of providing press clippings to senators and departmental staff. There is a Media Monitors fee of $85,000, which is based on the size of the department. We spend about $55,000, if you estimate the cost of our staff to produce the clips, to print them off; and we spend about $45,000 on consumables, which is basically paper. That gives us a total cost of about $185,000.

Senator RONALDSON —The Department of the House of Representatives has its own clipping service, is that right?

Mr Hallett —I cannot comment on that—I really cannot comment on the House of Representatives.

Senator RONALDSON —No, but they do have a separate clipping service, don’t they?

Mr Hallett —I can probably help you this way: we only provide a clipping service to senators and departmental staff. I really, honestly, cannot tell you with any degree of accuracy what level of press monitoring or clippings is provided to House of Representatives staff or members.

Senator RONALDSON —Has there been any discussions between the House of Representatives department and the Senate department in relation to combining that clipping service?

Mr Hallett —I have regular discussions with my counterpart the Serjeant, and I in recent times, because both departments are facing tight budgets—as the Clerk just mentioned in relation to our own department—we have had some very preliminary discussions about it but preliminary is the best word.

Senator RONALDSON —Despite the obvious differences in intellect and otherwise, where we on this side do shine in that regard, basically the difference between senators and members and their requirements in relation to clipping services, I would have thought, is minimal at most. Is there a bit of fiefdom involved in this? One of my staff spoke to the Department of the House of Representatives and there were comments such as, ‘This is how things have always been done. We are two separate and independent departments.’ It makes little or no sense, does it not, to have members and senators treated differently in relation to the provision of a clipping service? It is very important to us but I would not have thought it was something that required two separate departments providing that to members and senators.

Dr Laing —One of the reasons I initiated a structural review of the department was to have a look at questions like this. It is not necessarily purely a structural review but it is a chance to open the windows, let the moths out, have a look at what we do and how we do it and look for any sensible cost savings or efficiencies. That is something that we can have a look at, certainly.

Senator RONALDSON —I do not know whether you are aware, Ms Laing, but my understanding is that the Department of the House of Representatives is still doing this with scissors, which I do not think the Department of the Senate does. People literally walk in with a big set of scissors and cut these things up. That is why the Senate clips are usually available by about 9 am while the Reps get theirs between 10 am and 12 noon. I think the Library has a separate clipping service as well. I do not think the Senate operates with the scissors. I think there are other ways of doing it, Mr Hallett, are there not?

Mr Hallett —That is correct.

CHAIR —Can I remind senators that we are not here to investigate the House of Representatives. If I could also remind all senators of Dr Laing’s title - it is Dr Laing. If you could please use that.

Mr Hallett —Just to go back to the senator’s question, what you say is correct. Once again, as I say, I cannot comment on the Department of the House of Representatives, notwithstanding that I have had some very preliminary discussions with my counterpart. The way the media clips operate in this department is that we receive an electronic file from Media Monitors, that goes to our printing unit, they duplicate it and it is then distributed. I think you are correct in saying that in general terms scissors and paste are probably not used.

Senator RONALDSON —Madam Chair, can I just take up your intervention? I appreciate the comment in relation to Dr Laing; I thought I had, but clearly I had not. Surely I am entitled to ask questions about the efficiency potentially of this place, including the Department of the Senate. I am a bit gob smacked that you have actually told me that I cannot pursue this line of questioning.

CHAIR —I was reminding all senators that we cannot expect the witnesses to make comments on what happens in the House of Representatives; it is not our role here today.

Senator RONALDSON —Madam Chair, with the greatest respect, I think they can. Mr Hallett has already told us that he has started preliminary discussions with the House of Representatives in relation to the very matters that I am raising this morning. On that basis I would have thought I am entitled to pursue that.

Mr Hallett —Perhaps I could add one other comment to complete the picture if you like. I think you briefly mentioned in your first question about the media monitoring provided by the Parliamentary Library. Again, that is something where I personally have not been involved but I understand staff from our department have been involved with discussions there. That is a service that many senators probably use. It is electronic; you can book mark what you want and there are some possibilities there. Again, as Dr Laing mentioned about her structural review, one of the things we are doing is looking at better ways to do things, making sure that at the end of the day we can provide the best service possible. The only other thing I would pick up is that there is certainly no issue of fiefdom here. I think this is a question of just looking at the best way we can provide the service.

Senator RONALDSON —I actually mentioned the House of Representatives in relation to fiefdom, not the Senate. I rather suspect that the Senate is providing a service at a far lower cost than the House of Representatives is. I think it was at the last Senate estimates, the Parliamentary Library said—and I am sure that everyone is listening and they will be able to correct me if I am wrong—that there was a figure of about $1.3 million for the cost of that news service. There is a lot of money being spent and I think that there is an opportunity for greater efficiency. If the House of Representatives view this as a fiefdom issue, and that this is how things have always been done, then something needs to be done about it. My staff, who are far more knowledgeable in these things than I am, have asked me to ask you the question, Mr Hallett—or someone—that the Sennet keeps the PDFs of its daily clips on the website for about a week. Is that right?

Mr Hallett —Yes, approximately a week, on the intranet.

Senator RONALDSON —Are those PDF files archived after that? If so, is there any way those PDF files can be made available to Sennet users rather than forcing them to do a date search on Parl Info?

Mr Hallett —I would have to take that on notice.

Senator RONALDSON —In other words, I gather it is inconvenient. If it could be done that other way it would be far easier for senators to access that information.

Mr Hallett —Could I take that on notice and get you an answer on that?

Dr Laing —Could I just clarify, Madam Chair, that the daily Senate clippings are loaded on the intranet and are available electronically to senators. There is room for efficiencies there if senators are happy to look at them electronically rather than hard copies. We recognise that it is more convenient sometimes to have the hard copy to carry around and look at where you do not have access to a computer.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Do I recall that there was a period where we sought to trial making them available electronically for individual senators to print and that was not particularly successful.

Dr Laing —They are available for that purpose now. I think at the time when we were talking about electronic access only, several former senators had extremely strong views about the lack of access to a hard copy.

CHAIR —Senator Ronaldson, do you want to continue?

Senator RONALDSON —No, I think that was very useful. Pursue with great vigour, Dr Laing, your reforms in this area.

CHAIR —Are there any further questions to the Clerk’s office?

Senator RYAN —Thank you. I have a question for Senator Hogg. In June last year when the Senate agreed to the resolution moved by Senator Mason with respect to requesting the Auditor-General to undertake an investigation into the BER—and there may be a standard answer to this—do you, as President, write to the Auditor-General communicating that resolution?

The PRESIDENT —Yes I do. I sign off any resolution of the Senate to the appropriate agency or the appropriate embassy or whoever it might affect.

Senator RYAN —Your correspondence is merely attached as a Resolution of the Senate?

The PRESIDENT —Correct.

Senator RYAN —Has there been any further correspondence between you and the Auditor-General with respect to that resolution?

The PRESIDENT —No, not that I am aware of.

Senator RYAN —That is all I have, thank you.

Senator MOORE —I have a question about the committees, Dr Laing. Is this the appropriate place? There has been a recent round of selections in the permanent positions area. Can we have an update on exactly what the process is now with the number of positions that have been filled permanently and whether there continues to be any that are not?

Dr Laing —I might get the Clerk Assistant, Committees, to give you some details on that. Yes, there have been some selection rounds. It is a feature of the committee office that selection rounds are almost continuous because it is the area of the department where there is the largest turnover of staff. I will get Mr Reid to give you some more details.

Mr Reid —We currently have 59 equivalent full-time staff in the committee office. Recent selection rounds for—

Senator MOORE —Are the 59 full-time equivalent positions in the printout we have?

Mr Reid —They are. Recent selection rounds in 2010 have been for PEL1, APS6 and APS4 officers—that is, research officers, senior research officers and principal research officers.

Senator MOORE —What is the current status of permanently filled positions, positions that remain vacant and positions filled in an acting capacity?

Mr Reid —There are a number of positions in the committee office that are acting positions or temporary positions. The main feature of those types of positions would be to accommodate leave. The types of leave we would be looking at are a combination of maternity leaves or personal leaves. They add up to a minor number of the equivalent full-time staffing vacancies in 2009-10.

Senator MOORE —Last year we saw a number of people retire who had been at very senior levels and had been here a long time. In the year 2010-11, are you aware of any potential retirements? I know that things change, but is there a plan for people who have already given notice that they will be leaving?

Mr Reid —Not that I have formally received, but there would be a small number of officers that would qualify for that category of staff where retirement might be imminent but—

Senator MOORE —The famous 54 years 11 months.

Mr Reid —not that we have been advised about.

Senator RYAN —I have only been here a couple of years, but I have noted that there does not appear to be an increase in the number of references or bills going before committees and that, in my experience over the last two years, the committee staff seem to be under substantially more pressure now than they were two years ago. Firstly, do you have any comment on that?

Dr Laing —The past two years have been record years for the number of references to committees.

Senator RYAN —Not my fault.

Dr Laing —It does coincide with your appearance here, Senator Ryan.

Senator PARRY —I’m with you.

Dr Laing —So that observation could well be correct. Our staff numbers in the committee office have been lifting over that time as well, but it is certainly the case that the beginning of the 42nd Parliament saw a bit of an explosion in references to levels that we had not seen since the mid-nineties.

Senator RYAN —It strikes me that one of the issues that cannot be captured in this data—in my short time here—is that there has been a lot more complex legislation. For example, inquiries into 11 bills covering the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme are a lot different to inquiries into 11 tax law amendment bills. Does the complexity of legislation in itself mean that numeric comparisons with the past are somewhat more difficult or problematic to draw?

Dr Laing —I do not think that is the case at all. There were 19 GST bills, for example.

Senator RYAN —That was a decade ago.

Dr Laing —Yes, and that was the previous peak of reference levels for the committee office. I think that every year there is complex legislation, and it tends to be the complex legislation that is referred to committees. But I do not think the legislation we have experienced this year or last year is any more complex than what has gone before.

Senator RYAN —In your view then is there a need to consider not just the baseline level of resourcing of committees at the moment? Should we be considering increasing resourcing of committees for future years if this trend continues?

Dr Laing —Obviously that is something we would have to look at, yes. But it is fairly difficult to increase your baseline funding. What we do have in place are various strategies to cope with peak demands. We have a very flexible workforce in the committee office so there is a lot of lending of resources to assist with peaks in other committees. We also have on our books a number of very valuable former officers with a great deal of experience in the work of the Senate and its committees who are available to come back and do temporary assignments as the need arises. So we have a very highly skilled temporary and quick-acting workforce when required.

Senator RYAN —Thank you.

Senator PARRY —If the government requested the Senate to implement a number of additional select committees to investigate something unforeseen—for example, natural disasters or things of that nature—what budgetary restraints would there be on implementing, say, another four or five select committees?

Dr Laing —As you may know, the department has built into its budget a capacity for four select committees at any one time. Should there be a greater number than that then I guess it would be up to the Senate to prioritise what it thinks is important for select committees to pursue. There is a general agreement that has been through the Standing Committee on Procedure that there should be a cap on the number of select committees. As you know, we have one waiting in the wings for another one to finish. That is one mechanism to accommodate competing demands for select committees. In the end, if we were getting a lot of select committees beyond our funding capacity we would have to go in for a new policy proposal.

Senator PARRY —Thank you.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Which one is waiting in the wings?

Dr Laing —The COAG one.

Senator PARRY —The COAG—the Australian government’s—

Dr Laing —Governance committee—that is right.

Senator PARRY —That was contingent upon the wind up of the NBN committee.

Dr Laing —The Select Committee on the National Broadband Network. I do not think we have done that before, where the Senate has agreed to set one up prospectively, contingent on the completion of another select committee, but that is within the spirit of the agreements that have been in place over the past 15 years.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr President, Dr Laing and officers for appearing before us today.

[9.27 am]